Cricket: Stewart adds special effects

New Zealand 390 England 366-6
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The Independent Online
It may have been the moment that heralded the England captain's return to form with 83, but the day surely belonged to Alec the "Gaffer" Stewart, whose valiant 173 was the highest score made by an England wicketkeeper in a Test match.

Stewart, his strokes as perfect and polished as a never-ending string of pearls, broke the record held for 66 years by the late Leslie Ames, a man long considered to be the doyen of England's wicketkeeper batsmen, a reputation now in danger of being usurped by the action man from Surrey.

This was Stewart's fourth three-figure Test score against New Zealand, a side who, considering the way they bowled, still do not appear to have worked out his run-scoring strengths square of the wicket. Curiously, he has never scored centuries against Australia and South Africa, the two countries who would have analysed, logged and then tried to disrupt the way he plays.

It is a failing he says he would dearly love to put right next summer and one that, should it materialise, will be a testament to his fitness and dedication towards a game he clearly holds in the highest regard.

When he was finally out after tea, he had spent 15 hours and 24 minutes of the first three days on the field either batting or keeping, an effort his opposite number, Lee Germon, later paid tribute to when he described it as a "terrific performance," and one that, in the light of his dislocated little finger, was ultimately "very special".

It is difficult to reconcile that this was the same man dropped by Ray Illingworth for England's first Test of last summer, after averaging just under 30 during last winter's tour to South Africa. Stewart clearly feels he still has a point to make, and after finishing 1996 as Test cricket's highest run-scorer, it is clearly a feat he wants to repeat again in 1997.

In the past much has been made of Stewart's dual role as batsman and keeper, the demands of which have regularly been blamed for compromising his ability to score runs, usually in the middle order.

Before this winter a case definitely existed, though it is one rapidly losing credibility now that his average - since assuming the No 3 spot from Nasser Hussain in Bulawayo - has rocketed to over 100. With form like that, it is little wonder that Jack Russell has rarely been spotted with anything other than a paintbrush in his hand. Stroking the ball with that characteristic sweetness of his, Stewart humbled all the New Zealand bowlers bar Dipak Patel, whose wily tweakers brought more than one moral victory against the Surrey skipper's free-flowing blade.

He appears to have started the new year in scintillating form. This was his 10th century in 61 Tests and although he nearly ran out Mike Atherton taking a near suicidal single to get there, it more or less guarantees that England cannot now lose this Test, despite the substantial turn extracted by Patel throughout his probing and lengthy spell.

It was following one such close shave with Patel just after lunch, when Adam Parore missed a near impossible catch running backwards at square leg, that his lengthy partnership of 182 with Atherton was finally broken. The only disappointing aspect of it was the tardy progress they made in the morning session, when just 70 runs came from 32 overs.

For Patel, the breakthrough brought just reward for some fine bowling, though the England captain can consider himself more than a little unfortunate to have been caught and bowled, after a full-blooded heave had ricocheted off Justin Vaughan's hands at short mid-on back to a surprised, but ultimately grateful bowler.

Stewart's presence at the crease had therapeutic qualities, too, and the rapid rate with which he scored his runs gave Atherton time to rehabilitate and familiarise himself at the crease at his leisure.

With runs coming freely from one end, the England captain, rarely looked anything other than assured in his time at the crease, a testament to the hard work he has put in on resurrecting his technique and confidence. The latter being that "will o' the wisp" thing which, firmly entrenched one minute can disappear without trace the next, often leaving a batsman questioning his every waking moment in the quest for its return.

Graham Thorpe is another who appears to have had his confidence restored. Coming to the crease after Nasser Hussain had been caught by Saturday's centurion Stephen Fleming at silly point off pad and bat - a decision that looked harsh - Thorpe merrily played second fiddle to his county captain in a valuable fourth-wicket stand worth 78.

That partnership coincided with New Zealand taking the new ball, a bold but ultimately misguided decision that brought England 29 runs from six overs of pace until Patel, having slowed things down once, was again brought back to stem the flow.

Mind you, at that stage it was all Stewart anyway and it was only when the Surrey captain was out, smartly caught by Simon Doull off his own bowling did Thorpe begin to flex his muscles and reach for the boundary.

However, a nasty bang to the temple, sustained as he ducked into a bouncer from Chris Cairns, appeared to scramble his judgement and he was clearly in the wrong when he and John Crawley both ended up at the bowlers end after Doull's full-length dive at mid-on had caused Thorpe to turn down Crawley's call for a comfortable single.

With Craig White given out lbw first ball to an appaling decision from umpire Steve Bucknor, it was left to Thorpe and Dominic Cork to see out the rest of the day, a task Thorpe accomplishd by passing 50 for the second time in successive Tests.

Top wicketkeeper Test innings

1 Taslim Arif (Pakistan) 210* v Australia (Faisalabad) 1979-80; 2 Imtiaz Ahmed (Pakistan) 209 v New Zealand (Lahore) 1955-56; 3 B K Kunderan (India) 192 v England (Madras) 1963-64; 4 Denis Lindsay (South Africa) 182 v Australia (Johannesburg) 1966-67; 5 Ian Smith (New Zealand) 173 v India (Auckland) 1989-90; 6 Alec Stewart (England) 173 v New Zealand, (Auckland) 1997; 7 Clyde Walcott (West Indies) 168* v England (Lord's) 1950. * not out

Eden Park scoreboard

England won toss

NEW ZEALAND - First Innings 390 (B A Pocock 70, S P Fleming 129, C L Cairns 67; D Gough 4-91).

ENGLAND - First Innings

(Overnight: 123 for 1)

N V Knight lbw b Doull 5

(31 min, 28 balls, 1 four)

*M A Atherton c and b Patel 83

(272 min, 213 balls, 11 fours)

A J Stewart c and b Doull 173

(363 min, 277 balls, 23 fours, 1 six)

N Hussain c Fleming b Patel 8

(25 min, 22 balls, 1 four)

G P Thorpe not out 57

(202 min, 139 balls, 7 fours)

J P Crawley run out (Doull-Germon) 14

(61 min, 43 balls, 1 four)

C White lbw b Vaughan 0

(1 min, 1 ball)

D G Cork not out 16

(40 min, 36 balls, 2 fours, 1 six)

Extras (b1 lb6 w1 nb2) 10

Total (for 6, 501 min, 126 overs) 366

Fall: 1-18 (Knight), 2-200 (Atherton), 3-222 (Hussain), 4-304 (Stewart), 5-339 (Crawley), 6-339 (White).

To bat: D Gough, A D Mullally, P C R Tufnell.

Bowling: Morrison 16-4-65-0 (nb3) (4-1-10-0, 4-1-17-0, 5-2-15-0, 3-0- 23-0); Doull 30-8-89-2 (8-4-15-1, 4-0-21-0, 7-2-14-0, 3-1-14-0, 8-1-25- 1); Cairns 17-2-66-0 (6-0-36-0, 4-1-14-0, 7-1-16-0); Astle 11-3-21-0 (4- 1-8-0, 5-1-11-0, 2-1-2-0); Vaughan 19-4-41-1 (6-1-14-0, 5-0-15-0, 2-1- 2-0, 6-2-10-1); Patel 33-8-77-2 (21-6-31-2, 8-1-33-0, 4-1-13-0).

Progress: Third day: 150: 182 min, 46 overs. Lunch: 193-1 (Atherton 79, Stewart 104) 68 overs. 200: 270 min, 70.1 overs. New ball taken after 88.2 overs at 241-3. 250: 352 min, 90.1 overs. Tea: 285-3 (Stewart 165, Thorpe 18) 97 overs. 300: 391 min, 99 overs. 350 in 479 min, 11 9.4 overs.

Atherton's 50: 147 min, 117 balls, 8 fours. Stewart's 50: 78 min, 57 balls, 7 fours, 1 six. 100: 215 min, 161 balls, 14 fours, 1 six. 150: 330 min, 254 balls, 20 fours, 1 six. Thorpe's 50: 177 min, 118 balls, 6 fours.

Umpires: S A Bucknor and R S Dunne.

TV replay umpire: D B Cowie.

Referee: P J P Burge.